Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Managing Difficult Relationships Part 1: What Kind of Monkey Are You Dealing With......?

We're all primates.

Many of our day-to-day behaviours have been hard-wired into us over thousands of years of evolution.  Our ancestors survived by being excellent threat-detectors (it was important to decide quickly whether an animal or situation was safe) and by being good at sucking up to the leader of the pack, to put it bluntly. According to the evolutionary psychologists, being friendly with the alpha male or female enhanced your survival prospects .

So, we've evolved to be vigilant and status-conscious.  Apparently when we meet someone, the first thing we unconsciously assess is their level of status - do I need to be wary of this person?  Do I need to keep on the right side of them?

And other primates are sniffing you, picking up cues as to how powerful you are, how much respect they need to give you.

If you want to master this game, it helps to know what kind of monkey you are dealing with.  Let's consider the Chimpanzee and the Bonobo.

In the wild, chimpanzees are very territorial, competitive and (particularly when threatened), ferociously aggressive.  There is a strict hierarchy with a male chimp at the top.

In your organisation, you know you're dealing with a chimp when:
  • you feel like they're trying to dominate (often using their tone of voice and body language), and they are inclined to displays of power and status;
  • the conversations often have an argumentative tone - there's a Win/Lose feel to the interaction;
  • their focus is on the task in hand, with little or no attention paid to pleasantries.
Bonobos are very different.  They are far more relaxed about their territory. Rather than seeking to dominate, they engage in 'affable social networking'.  Bonobos are much less
hierarchical than chimps, and tend to form matriarchal groups.

You know you're dealing with a bonobo because:
  • their body language is responsive and affirming - lots of smiling and nodding;
  • the conversation is friendly and relaxed;
  • you get the impression that their primary focus is 'mutual stroking', with the task being secondary.

Next time: how to handle each type of monkey (and what they think of you).

Monday, 8 September 2014

A Kinder Approach to The Blame Game

Nobody really enjoys the blame game.  For most of us, being blamed feels painful.  And if we blame others (often in self-defence) we rarely feel good afterwards.

However, there is a way of playing the blame game in a more positive way.  It works best with a friend, but you can play on your own too.  This particular approach to the blame game was devised by two Australian psychologists - Dr Toni Noble and Dr Helen McGrath.

Here's how it to do it:

Step 1. Reflect on a situation that didn't go well (and which involved another person). Draw a circle and divide it up in a way that reflects the responsibility for what went wrong.  Some of the responsibility might be yours, some of it might be the other person's and some of it might just be the situation (ie, bad luck).  You will end up with a pie chart with the size of the different segments reflecting the different degrees of responsibility for the outcome.

The example below illustrates a situation where you criticised another person, and they reacted badly to your comments.
Your assessment of the situation

Step 2.  Ask a friend to help you review the situation.  Describe what happened (but don't show them the pie chart that you have already drawn). When you have described the situation, your friend draws a pie chart which reflects their view of where responsibility lies.

Step 3. Compare the two pie charts.  There are three possible outcomes at this point:

A. Your pie charts are similar.  This suggests that you were accurate in your assessment of where responsibility lies.

B. Your friend has allocated more responsibility to you. This suggests that you might be letting yourself off the hook and need to take more responsibility for the situation (an apology might be in order).

C. Your friend has allocated less responsibility to you.  This is the most common outcome of the exercise, and reflects that fact that most of us tend to be too hard on ourselves.

Your friend's assessment of the situation

To play the game on your own, draw your pie chart soon after the event.  Then draw a second pie chart a day or so later when you are able to be more objective.

Monday, 21 July 2014


The right praise at the right time can have a powerful impact, but there are a few do's and don'ts that we need to be aware of.

1. Dog or Cat?
Some people are primarily externally directed - they judge the value of their work by the feedback that they receive, whether it's an approving comment, evaluation data or a letter from a satisfied service user.  Praise can really give these people a lift.

However, some of us are internally directed.  We make up our own minds about how well we're doing - 'I'm the one doing the job, so I'm best-placed to evaluate my performance'.  These people are less interested in praise, and if you give them too much they may feel irritated.

How do you know which type you are dealing with?  Externals tend to be more facially responsive - they smile, nod and watch your expression closely.  Internals tend to be less expressive: you get the impression that they are less interested in what you are saying.

2. Don't Patronise Me!
The very act of giving praise implies that you are somehow in a position of judgement. There is a danger that the unspoken message is 'I have assessed your performance and I approve of it'.  This is sometimes valid and appropriate, but if you want to praise someone without implying a power differential here are some phrases to use:

'One of the things that I admire about you is....'

'I really respect you for the way that you.....'

3. Flesh it Out
We're often taught to phrase constructive criticism in terms of specifically what the other person did (or didn't do), the impact of their behaviour, and to explore alternative approaches.  The same process works well when praising someone:

'Yesterday then that man was becoming really agitated in reception you went over to him, sat down with him and listened while he vented his frustration.....' (Specific)

'.....it meant that he calmed down quickly and I noticed that several staff who had been looking quite anxious were reassured by what you did.' (Impact)

'I really admire your knack of defusing potentially tricky situations like that.  Is is something you've learnt to do over time? Have you always been good at it?' (Explore).

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A Better IPR

For some of us, the annual appraisal runs the risk of being a hurried rush through the organisation’s IPR paperwork rather than a real conversation.  One UK survey by Investors In People found that 29% of staff view their appraisal as a waste of time.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Here are 5 tips on how to make the most out of the annual review meeting.

1. Have a real agenda
The best appraisal conversations are ones where you talk about the topics or issues that you really want to discuss.  So, tell each other a week or so in advance what those issues are (so you both have time to consider them - having some time to think in advance of the meeting is especially important for introverts).

2. Get your venue right
Anywhere but the manager’s office (too many distractions and potentially a feeling of end-of-term summons to the headteacher’s office).  Set the chairs at right-angles (at a table if you prefer) - this reduces the likelihood of your conversation turning into an argument.

3. “How are we going to collect feedback?”
It’s a good idea to agree between you who the manager could approach for feedback on how the appraisee is perceived.  This can be particularly helpful when the manager hasn’t seen a great deal of the appraisee’s work (because the manager is new in post or based in a different location), but also because it will provide a more balanced view of the individual’s performance.

4. It’s about the person, not the paperwork
It’s so easy to spend too much time in your meeting poring over the appraisal forms.  The best IPR meetings are those where each person actually looks at the other one and remembers that there is a fellow human being in the room with hopes, anxieties and ambitions.  If you get the rapport right the rest will follow.

5. Praise without patronising
It can be difficult to praise someone without sounding at least slightly patronising.  Instead of saying "well done!" (which implies that you are somehow sitting in judgement), you might say "I admire the way that you tackled that project".

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Confidence Tricks: The Power Pose

Every now and then I come across a nifty little trick or shortcut that can help us to feel and appear more confident when the pressure is on........

The Power Pose
This means standing or sitting in an expansive manner, for example by standing tall, with feet apart and with your hands on your hips - Wonder Woman's 'power pose'. One research study found that candidates who adopted the power pose before undertaking an interview were more likely to be offered the job than those who hadn’t.

Importantly, the successful candidates only used the power pose before entering the interview room – the interviewers didn’t see them in this posture. This indicates that the pose changed the candidate’s internal state - it made them feel more confident, and this is what made them more impressive in the interview.  

So the next time you need a quick confidence boost, why not take yourself off to somewhere you can't be observed and spend a few moments in the power pose.

Cuddy, Amy J.C., Caroline A. Wilmuth, and Dana R. Carney. The Benefit of Power Posing Before a High-Stakes Social Evaluation. Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-027, September 2012.